Public transit, for all of its sights and smells, is a beautiful thing. At a time when the powers that be are hell bent on systematically degrading our last communalistic institutions, affordable transit is a daily reminder that if we put up with each other and all pitch in some money, we can build a public system that ideally works for everyone. Uber is coming for public transit's lunch money. In fact, the company will essentially serve the purpose of public transit in the small Canadian town of Innisfil, Ontario starting May 1st.
The infamously cut-throat company has experimented with transit before. In Boston, the company partnered with the city's transit agency to provide on-demand rides for disabled persons; in Altamonte Springs, Florida, riders can hail an Uber from anywhere in the city and get a 20 percent discount. Now, the company has signed a deal with Innisfil—which has no bus system—to provide massively subsidized rides to locations around town for (ideally) the cost of a bus trip.
Innisfil, less than an hour's drive north of Toronto, has a population of about 30,000. As in many small towns across Canada, you need a car to get anywhere. "For high school students to come out to the rec centre, there's really no form of transportation," said Innisfil Mayor Gord Wauchope in an interview. "The kids need some way to get transported around to their jobs or at least to the rec centre to enjoy themselves."
In 2015, high school students in Innisfil handed city council a 400-signature petition imploring the town to implement public transit. Now Uber has stepped in to fill the gap instead, and the company is looking for similar partnerships in other Canadian cities.
"We are pleased to be partnering with Innisfil for Canada's first partnership of this kind and look forward to continued dialogue with other jurisdictions and transit authorities across Canada to explore similar partnerships," a spokesperson for Uber Canada wrote in a prepared statement.
So, why did Innisfil choose Uber? Put simply: money, and short-term thinking.
"Running a transit system is just too expensive"
Innisfil is putting up $125,000 for one year of funding, starting on May 1st, when the service launches. People in rural areas will be able to call a ride to downtown and pay as much as they would for a regular bus trip, and teens can catch a ride into town. The subsidy is set to be absolutely massive. If a ride is $15, said Wauchope, then the city will cover $12 of it, and the user pays just $3. That's an 80 percent subsidy, which is crazy. But, he argued, it's still cheaper than building out public transit for a relatively small population.
"Running a transit system is just too expensive, and it's not fair to taxpayers who won't get to use it because the bus won't go by their place," Wauchope said.
Compared to the $100,000 that Innisfil is ponying up to subsidize Uber rides for a year, the same town concluded in a 2015 report that running a two-bus transit system would cost $605,000 in the first year of service, with the cost going down annually. But can a city survive on Uber alone, forever? No, Wauchope said. Eventually, if the population keeps growing, it will need a real public transit solution. But when?
"2031, or 2041, or maybe before that," Wauchope said. "There has to be some transportation set up in this town so people can get where they need to go."
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